Today we return to the Gospel of Mark. In returning, we get a picture of an angry Christ calling his people to order and teaching them at the same time. He does not spare his words. He calls them hypocrites, a word that originally meant someone who acts. In this case Christ is pointing out to them that it is of no use to go through the motions, keeping the rules and observances but without understanding the reason for these or without having your heart in it. The scribes and Pharisees had put together many laws and sub-laws from the teaching of Moses and they had rules and regulations for everything. Religion and everyday life were inseparable because there was a rule and a law for every activity. This was a good thing in its intention but people began to keep the laws and observances while forgetting the God to whom they were supposed to give honour. When we decide to give honour to God or to others surely we ought to give honour to God in a way that is acceptable to God rather than give honour so as to be honoured ourselves.
Jesus quoted them the saying of the prophet Isaiah, words that cut to the heart of the matter. He said, ‘This people honours me only with lip-service while their hearts are far from me. The worship they offer me is worthless. The doctrines they teach are only human regulations’. Jesus went on to explain that it is from within, from the intentions and emotions and thoughts of a person that all that is unworthy comes. It is of no use cleaning the outside of pot and pan or going through the motions of religion and being seen to go through the motions that make one religious or holy. It is the state of the hidden, interior self or soul that makes one spiritual or worldly, clean or unclean, holy or sinful. Jesus is well versed in the traditions of the prophets. He denounces all hypocrisy, all that cultivates appearance before being or reality or truth. He demands a change of heart, the only way to holiness and to true religion or spirituality.
Over the past thirty years the church has dropped a great deal of rules to try to bring us back to this reality. The reaction of people has been mixed. Somehow people like to have rules to keep because they can measure what they think is their holiness in terms of prayers said or rules kept or obligations carried out. At the same time there may be no real change, no conversion of heart, no growth in holiness. This can be a cause of great scandal to others when they see someone who is regarded as holy or observant and who treats others in words or in deeds in a manner that is scandalous or unworthy. Jesus, quoting Isaiah, declares the worship of such persons to be worthless. When we have achieved some degree of purity of heart, holiness of life, charity of word, good thoughts, unworthy emotions held in check, then we can congratulate ourselves on keeping the law and carrying out our observances.
We certainly need rules. There is a constant tension within us between the old person and the new person that needs the discipline of rules as surely as a growing plant may need a stake to strengthen and guide it to full growth. We need to respect the rules and to enshrine our values in a set of rules or law. Our whole civilisation and way of life is based on the rule of law and the equal and inestimable value of each person in the face of the law. When we get rid of the law or the rules too easily then things can fall flat on their face in front of us.
In some senses this can be said to have happened in the case of all the rules we used to have concerning the Eucharist for example. The problem may have been that people forgot why they were keeping the rules and regulations and these became gods in themselves. The reason for the law must be understood before we can keep it with a good heart. Saint Thomas More, who was executed for treason once said that the greatest treason was to do the right thing for the wrong reason. In the tradition of the prophets and adding his own divine insights, Jesus teaches us a religion of the heart that counsels us to always do the right thing and to do it for the right, honourable and loving reason.